Real Estate

Tips to keep power bills down

Homeowners, you thought you were off the hook with home-maintenance projects just because the temperatures dipped toward freezing? Think again. Cory Malloy, co-owner of Brightleaf Customer Care, says winter is the best time to check for some problems, such as places where unwanted cold air comes in.

Twice a year, homeowners need to venture into their crawl spaces and attics to look for leaks and shore up fiberglass insulation that has come loose and droops down.

Malloy’s business provides houses with the equivalent of an annual physical, then fixes what is a problem and maintains what isn’t. He spends more than his fair share of time in crawl spaces, and he’s sympathetic to homeowners who don’t like to go in theirs.

“People are very leery about getting in there with any critters or bugs,” Malloy said. “But everything is dormant when it’s cold. When it’s 40 degrees or colder, nothing moves. You can feel kind of safe that there aren’t any critters rummaging around with you down there.”

Air leaks leach money from the homeowner in the form of substantially higher energy bills. Fortunately, they are easy to find in cold weather, and relatively inexpensive to fix. Hold your hand an inch or two away from the edges of windows, doors and the portal to any attic or crawl space. If you can feel cold air flowing in, you need to repair or replace the weather-stripping.

Check for air leaks where plumbing pipes or vents come through a wall. These can be tightened with a tube of caulk or a can of spray foam insulation. “Getting a good seal on your doors and windows is the number-one item any homeowner can tackle themselves,” Malloy said. “That’s the biggest leaker throughout the house.”

Malloy discovered a sort of sleeping bag that insulates pull-down stairs to the attic. The Attic Tent, a Mooresville company, sells the zippered insulated tent for about $200. The product qualifies for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act tax credit that allows taxpayers to receive a tax credit of 30 percent of qualified energy-saving upgrades placed in service in 2009 and 2010, up to a total tax credit of $1,500.

The federal government also offers assistance through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program. Low-income families -- homeowners with a maximum income of twice the federal poverty level -- can receive up to $6,500 worth of weatherization services free of charge. North Carolina’s weatherization program manager is Harold Davis. Contact him at 715-5850 or

Ensure that your storm door is working up to potential by adding a drop or two of oil or a spritz of WD-40 to the hinges and pneumatic closer so the door closes tightly. And, of course, replace the screens with glass panels before the cold weather moves in.

If your home is heated with a forced-air furnace, turn off the power to the unit and vacuum off the blower blades, then either replace its disposable filter or clean its permanent filter. Check to make sure the HVAC unit’s condensate drain line that extends outside the house is properly insulated to prevent ice buildup that can block the pump. “If the pump shuts off, the furnace shuts off,” Malloy said.

Two items on Malloy’s winterizing checklist require a professional: HVAC systems and fireplaces. Twice a year, before you turn the heat on in the winter and the air conditioning on in the summer, bring in a professional to service your HVAC system. If you have a wood-burning fireplace, call a professional chimney sweep out to clean out the creosote before you light your first fire of the season. Creosote is flammable and could start a fire inside the chimney that could spread throughout the house.

One of the simplest winterizing tasks — so simple that many homeowners overlook it — is to disconnect the garden hose from the outside spigot. Water stays in the spigot and hose. Once the temperature drops below freezing, that water turns to ice, which expands back into the waterline inside the house and can crack the pipe. Then, once spring comes and you turn the water back on, water sprays out through the cracked pipe. Malloy recommends a wireless device called WaterCop, by DynaQuip Controls, that senses when the temperature of a waterline drops to an unsafe level and shuts off the valve that supplies the line. The system starts at about $600 but does not qualify for the ARRA energy tax credit.

Winterizing a home doesn’t take much time or cost much money. The rewards go beyond savings in energy bills. You’ll feel more comfortable in a snug and cozy home once the drafts are gone, and you’ll have greater peace of mind with the nagging worry of damage from burst pipes.

“You can do a lot yourself in an hour or two over the weekend,” Malloy said. Nancy E. Oates is a business and real estate writer in Chapel Hill. Reach her at